White Light/White Heat refers, as many probably caught, to an album by The Velvet Underground, and hopefully this will not to be a random reference given what I want to make of it. As one of the premier experimental rock bands of the 1960s—their first album was a joint project with Andy Warhol—The Velvet Underground, following the inspiration and lead of front man Lou Reed, would frequently draw upon the use of feedback distortion to the point where it became nearly indistinguishable from white noise. To be fair, Lou Reed also had a knack for writing traditional songs as well, with catchy melodies and a good sense for the use of harmony. In 1975 Lou Reed took his white noise tendency to an extreme when he released Metal Machine Music, which is to many ears (mine included) largely a compilation of white noise. There is some debate about whether or not this album was released as a joke or as a way to quickly complete his contractual obligations to the record label he had become disenchanted with. Whatever the motivations, one should not be too quick to discount the use of white noise or discredit a work that makes use of it.
At the basis of the criticism of white noise as I’ve sketched it here is a premise that Deleuze challenges, and challenges from what he admits to be a Platonic perspective. The premise is that to be fully real is to to be fully determinate and identifiable, in the sense that Platonic Ideas are traditionally thought to be simple essences that serve as models for the numerous copies and instantiations we see around us. Deleuze rejects this view of Plato, however, and if one has instead the Platonism of the later dialogues in mind, which involves the assertion that ‘Ideas are a little like multiplicities which must be traversed by the questions How? How much? In what case?, then yes,’ Deleuze claims, ‘everything that I am saying seems to me in effect to be Platonic.’ Interestingly, Donald Davidson was drawn, both early and late in his career, to the late dialogues of Plato, and to the Philebus in particular. As Davidson understands the Ideas of Plato, by the late dialogues they no longer represent the simple essence or truth that one can, on grasping, use as a model with which to live the good life. By the time of the Philebus, and much in line with Deleuze's reading of the Philebus, Davidson claims that
The study of the good life develops from a manifest exchange of originally opposed opinions. The goal is not fixed in advance, for the goal is not represented as a matter of finding the nature of some single idea, but rather as knowing the art of discriminating, judging, selecting, and mixing the appropriate elements of a life in a way that exhibits measure, proportion, and stability (from Truth, Language, and History).
We begin, in short, with ‘originally opposed’ and identified positions and then move, with the goal ‘not fixed in advance’ in an effort to select, mix, and discern the ‘appropriate elements of a life’. As Deleuze understands this effort, we move from a position of intellectual bifurcation, from an either/or of mutually exclusive positions, to a multiplicity of selecting, mixing, and conjoining a multiplicity of the ‘appropriate elements of a life’. It is this sense of Idea (and with a capital I) that Deleuze will use repeatedly throughout Difference and Repetition. Moreover, in giving an example of an Idea he offers the Idea of color, which he claims ‘is like white light which perplicates in itself the genetic elements and relations of all the colours, but is actualized in the diverse colours with their respective spaces; or the Idea of sound, which is also like white noise.’ (DR 206). What we are to make of this, put briefly, is that the Idea is not a predetermining identity or simplicity of essence that in effect preforms the determinate identities that come to instantiate the Idea (on the model-copy reading of Plato for instance); rather, Ideas as understood from the perspective of a Deleuzian Platonism, are concrete universals that we get as the intensive variations of colors come to be condensed into a single field of intensive variations. But to think of it this way is not quite right if we take the field of intensive variations to be the result of this condensation rather than the condition for differentiating between different colors in the first place. Deleuze makes this point quite clearly in an early essay on Bergson when he is discussing how white light as a concrete universal is what we get when
we send the colors through a convergent lens that concentrates them on the same point: what we have then is "pure white light," the very light that "makes the differences come out between the shades." So, the different colors are no longer objects under a concept, but nuances or degrees of the concept itself.
The point is worth repeating: white light is what “makes the differences come out between the shades”, and with this move we come to the core of Deleuze’s project: an affirmation of the univocity of Being as Difference. White light is thus not the combination of all the colors that fall under the abstract concept or Idea of color, but it is the very real and concrete condition for the differences between the identifiable colors themselves.
The same is true for white noise. Whatever novel and original sounds musicians may come to use in their work, it is white noise that “makes the differences come out” between the varying musical styles and sounds. It is no wonder then that experimental music in particular often sounds like senseless white noise to the uninitiated; or, to allude to an earlier post, it is no wonder as well that as philosophers explore and express philosophical Ideas they inevitably encounter the incredulous stare.